Je suis Waterford Whispers News!

In response to a recently televised clip by Irish satirist website Waterford Whispers, Catholic Archbishop Eamon Martin published a tweet saying:

“I am shocked that producer/editor of ‘NYE Countdown Show’ @RTE @RTEOne didn’t realise how deeply offensive was a mocking ‘news report’ accusing God of rape & reporting his imprisonment. This outrageous clip should be removed immediately & denounced by all people of goodwill.”

He goes on to say that:

“To broadcast such a deeply offensive and blasphemous clip about God & Our Blessed Mother Mary during the Christmas season on ‘NYE Countdown Show’ on @RTE, @RTEOne & on Eve of the Solemn Feast of Mary, Mother of God is insulting to all Catholics and Christians.”

The clip was a mock year-in-review news bulletin, portrayed as a broadcast from satirical website Waterford Whispers News, where former RTÉ newsreader Aengus MacGrianna reads a report over video footage of a man dressed in white robes being led by gardaí from a court.

“A shocking revelation this year,” MacGrianna’s says, “God became the latest figure to be implicated in the ongoing sexual harassment scandal.

The five-billion-year-old stood accused of forcing himself on a young Middle Eastern migrant and allegedly impregnating her against her will before being sentenced to two years in prison, with the last 24 months suspended. Following the news, movie producer Harvey Weinstein requested a retrial in Ireland.”

The Archbishop’s reaction and subsequent opinions are his own. He is entitled to them and I have no objection to his public expression of same – although Twitter seems to me to be an ever-so-slightly-less-than-appropriate forum for such a ‘weighty’ initiation of religious debate by such an esteemed authority as an Archbishop. Does the Pope have a Twitter account?

I have both a minor and a major issue with the Archbishop’s statement.

Minor is his amateur attempt to augment his argument by stating that his shock was all the more severe given that the clip was broadcast during the ‘Christmas season… & on Eve of the Solemn Feast of Mary, Mother of God.’ There is an obvious inference here and it is this. The timing of the broadcast appears to insult the Archbishop all the more to the extent that we can safely assume his shock would have been less severe if the clip had been published at some other time of the year.

The national broadcaster, to its credit, appears to defend the clip while simultaneously apologising for any offence caused.

“RTE recognises that matters which can cause offence naturally differ from person to person, within comedy and satire in particular.”

The major problem I have with the Archbishop’s statement is that once again we have a case of the Catholic Church (albeit it an Archbishop – middle management) maintaining the position that everything it stands for is inviolate and must not be questioned (whether in seriousness or satirically) despite the countless examples of dogmas that have been discarded over the centuries of its existence.

The institution of the Church will always and stubbornly remain steadfast in its beliefs until overwhelming evidence to the contrary is presented authoritatively – and even then may resist. What the Archbishop fails to recognise publicly on this occasion, although I suspect privately he is well aware of, is the obvious satire contained within the clip.

The sheer hypocrisy (and subsequent atrocities – although not in this instance) demonstrated by Islamic fundamentalists when Charlie Hebdo published a satirical cartoon of Muhammad has once again been displayed by a religious leader, only this time that leader is not an Islamic fundamentalist but rather a conservative Catholic Archbishop appointed by Rome.

Whether Rome agrees with Eamon Martin remains to be seen but is largely inconsequential in my estimation.

Je suis Waterford!

If you have nothing good to say…

In 1998 I ran for election to the Students Union in Athlone Institute of Technology. As part of my preparation for the hustings I wrote a manifesto which addressed the issues facing the student population of the college at the time. Happily, I was elected and have been politically vocal ever since – but I digress!

To introduce the manifesto, I was looking for a realistic vision for third level education in general and chanced upon a speech by Professor Edward Walsh who was leaving his position as President (and founder) of UL (University of Limerick). In his speech he opined that for far too long the Irish third level system had operated like an ivory tower – with academics looking down from a height at the larger percentage of the population and seldom interacting with them in any significant manner. He also stated that it was incumbent upon those charged with managing the various parts of the academic system to immediately begin making sustainable policy decisions in an effort to make third level education more accessible to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. His reasoning, as I understood it, was that the resultant diversity of university graduates would ultimately benefit Irish (and global) society in the medium to long term. Thankfully, his assessment was accurate and acted upon with all third level institutions in Ireland now accepting ‘non-traditional’ students through a variety of alternative programmes, scholarships and grants.

Sixteen years later I found myself taking a contract position as a lecturer of Computer Science – with students who were in receipt of Social Welfare and retraining for a new career in IT. Although it took some time for me to arrive at that teaching position in 2014, the words and sentiments of Ed Walsh had never really escaped my psyche. I was reminded of them again today while talking with a friend back home in Galway about the difficulties of disseminating academic knowledge to the population in general – rather than just those who are already intellectually open or susceptible to the new knowledge – a little like delivering a sermon to the congregation rather than the choir – assuming the choir consists of other academics and the congregation comprises the rest of society.

So, what are some of the issues associated with efficiently transmitting a thought or message that occurs in the mind of one person to the mind of another?

Let’s begin by establishing who is who and what is what. The thought or message happens in the mind of a person who wants to share it with someone else. Let’s call the person with the thought or message in mind the ‘sender’. Let’s stick with ‘message’ as the thought to be shared and let’s call the recipient of the message the ‘receiver’. The terminology comes from the transmission of messages over electronic pathways and is familiar to all students of electronics and computer science. We would typically abbreviate the terms to ‘Tx’ (Transmitter or Sender), ‘Rx’ (Receiver) and ‘Msg’ for the message.

There is another additional term associated with computer communications which is appropriate to this discussion. An ‘ack’ is a response from the recipient to the sender ‘acknowledging’ receipt of the message. It confirms that the transmission has been received and understood but only understood to the extent that there are no apparent errors in the message. For now just assume I have a good reason to mention it. All will become clear anon – hopefully.

So we have a sender with a message ready to be transmitted to a recipient.

Before we send it, let’s take a look at the message itself and establish a few basics. The actual detail of the message is not of paramount importance for the purposes of this discussion but rather we need to focus on the clarity of the message. Let’s take an example to help us proceed. Our email message is:

We have declared war on our enemy!

OK, maybe the detail of the message is actually important!

Without further ado, let’s send the message to our chosen recipient – and wait. The first response from our recipient might be:

Which enemy?

Well, at least we know the recipient actually received our message (‘ack’)!

Although there may be other questions to follow, it is already clear that we have not sent a very concise message. Let’s start again.

The U.S. has declared war on China.

Yep, the detail of the message is most definitely important.

Better! At least we have been more specific about our intentions to wage war with the Chinese – for whatever reason.

Let’s assume that this initial message contains sufficient information to begin a conversation and turn our attention to our recipient.

We are hardly likely to send this message to a 2-year-old child. The message should be intended for an appropriate recipient – who will at least grasp the meaning of our statement. So, it is obvious at this stage that whatever message we send must be understandable by the recipient – an executive in the military when waging war for example. Inappropriate recipients are not likely to respond positively to our communication or, worse, may even become offended by our inappropriate choice of target for our message. Friend-requesting strangers on Facebook is a good example of inappropriate communication – in most cases. Sales people cold-calling is another, spam email another – and there are as many more examples as there are stars in the night sky.

So, before sending the message, we will typically have expectations that the recipient will understand and respond in some manner as to move the conversation along. Otherwise what would be the point of sending them the message in the first place? We are hardly likely to spend time communicating with someone unless we intend for that communication to continue towards some reasonable objective. The message is the first in a succession of subsequent messages that we hope will form the basis for further conversation – or even debate.

So before we send out that initial message we should do some groundwork. What do we want to say? Why are we saying it? To whom do we want to say it and how do we convey the message such that our recipient understands it with as little confusion as possible? We hope for a response received ‘loud and clear’ but requests for further clarification may well move things along nicely too.

Confusion is only one of a litany of possible reactions when sending a message that is less than crystal. We haven’t even considered the implications of a recipient misunderstanding the intent of the message or even reacting emotionally rather than with reason. They may simply be having a bad day or be distracted by some other important issue. We have little control over the circumstances at the other end of the line but we should at least minimise the potential for a reaction other than the one we expect. Don’t, for example, ring your surgeon friend when he’s hovering over an open heart with a very sharp scalpel – although, as he pointed out later that evening over a couple of cold pints of Guinness in a Ballsbridge hostelry, he doesn’t bring his mobile phone into 5-hour surgical procedures anyway – or any surgery for that matter!

Another good friend once told me that he never sends important emails immediately after writing them. Rather, he sleeps on the issue and reviews the email before hitting the ‘send’ button the following day. A wise man indeed – and something of a ‘Lazarus’ figure when playing poker for real money!

Thus far, I have been discussing email messages where the communication is written and there is a definitive point at which the message is sent e.g. hitting the send button on email or WhatsApp or even, back in the heady days of ‘snail mail’, licking a stamp and dropping the letter in the post box. At least the moment before sending these types of messages is defined and affords the sender an opportunity to perhaps pause before committing to the finality of transmission.

But, face-to-face (or telephone) conversation is an entirely more instantaneous form of communication yet fraught with all the same predicaments! Is it any wonder we often find ourselves unintentionally offending the people closest to us – not to mention complete strangers. With so many mental hurdles associated with transmitting a message clearly in real time to think about, it is nigh on impossible to ensure we filter our statements according to the necessary criteria for efficient communication. Sometimes it’s a wonder we can communicate in real-time at all with so much going on in our minds before the words are assembled and transmitted from our vocal chords into the air.

I have thus far limited the discussion to one-to-one communication but what of one-to-many? Take, for example, the hirsutely-challenged President of the U. S. of A and specifically his activities on the much-maligned communication platform known as Twitter.

I imagine the ‘Donald’ wakes up each morning, blinks the sleep from his eyes and immediately reaches for his cellphone on the bedside locker to graciously share some wisdom or another with the world. God himself probably doesn’t know the ruminations of Trump’s mysterious and magnificent dream cycles! 280 characters (or less) later and a random sequence of letters has been transmitted to the Twitterati. It is clear, from his countless gaffs already cast upon the ether, that an absolute minimum of groundwork has been performed before our sleepy genius hits the send button.

Now if you mentally rewind to my earlier discussion involving all the difficulties associated with clearly communicating a message to just one person, imagine the exponentially more difficult task of communicating to millions, nay billions of strangers, each having their own opinions, hopes and fears and many craving words of solace or wisdom from their appointed leader. The prudent course of action would be to assemble your best people over strong coffee, tea and toast and have them craft a message to optimise the efficacy of any imminent transmissions.

One, and only one, of two things can be true when we look at the communications ‘deployed’ by this most peculiar example of the human species experiment. Either Trump’s team of experts are incompetent or he is! I suspect, being a firm believer in the wisdom of those who establish themselves as global experts in their field (through hard work and dedication to a particular specialist topic over long periods of time) that the latter is true. Trump is irresponsibly incompetent! Is my message clear and concise and understandable to all who read it? Let me repeat it just in case.

The elected President of the U.S.A., Donald Trump, is irresponsibly incompetent.

Intentionally offending the recipient (or recipients) of our messages is an abhorrent activity in and of itself but, in many ways, doing so out of ignorance is even more abhorrent.

I referred to the Socratic Paradox in a previous post:

I know that I know nothing

Well, the responsible thing to do when you don’t know something is to ask someone who does. In an effort to learn, Socrates became expert at asking the right question of the right person. Even a kindergarten child knows to raise their hand when they have a question. Perhaps it is arrogance (beyond belief) that renders Trump incapable of asking for advice from those best placed to provide it or maybe he has just surrounded himself with the wrong people. Typically, those people should be academics who have spent their careers becoming experts in their chosen field or, at the very least, people with a great deal of specialist experience.

I suspect Professor Ed Walsh would have a few words for Donald if he got the opportunity. Trump’s Tower is not academic but rather a fortress built with brittle bricks of entitlement, arrogance, ignorance and an all-consuming fear of failing – again. Certainly, the fall from grace would be further, faster and infinitely more devastating than any he has experienced thus far.

The old adage applies:

If you have nothing good to say, say nothing!